The Boulevard Book: Evolution and Design of Multiway Boulevards

By Gordon, David | The Town Planning Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Boulevard Book: Evolution and Design of Multiway Boulevards


Gordon, David, The Town Planning Review


The Boulevard Book: Evolution and Design of Multiway Boulevards, Allan B. Jacobs, Elizabeth Macdonald and Yodan Rofé, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 2002, x + 252 pp., £27.50, US$39.95

The Boulevard Book reintroduces multiway boulevards to planners, urban designers and traffic engineers who wish to combine high traffic volumes and liveable streets. Classic multiway boulevards like Paris's Avenue Montaigne or Barcelona's Passeig de Gràcia include a central section for fast-moving through traffic and separate edge realms for pedestrians, local traffic cyclists and parking. Trees planted in the medians and quality streetscapes make fine public places, even while they carry traffic volumes that may exceed modern arterial roads.

This book traces the history of multiway boulevards, presents empirical research on their safety and functionality, describes prominent examples and provides design guidelines for their construction and rehabilitation. Our appetite for this type of street was whetted by Alan Jacobs' previous book, Great Streets (1993), which included a few examples in its powerful review and analysis of the world's best streets. This present book is a handsome volume containing over 200 measured plans, sections and views of streets. But its authors have larger ambitions, advocating multiway boulevards for redevelopment of modern high-volume traffic arteries in the face of considerable professional and regulatory obstacles.

The book opens with a quick tour of multiway boulevards in Paris, Barcelona and New York, including good and bad examples from each city. This introduction will be especially useful to readers who are not familiar with the street type. The bad precedents set up the argument that problem boulevards, like the Bronx's Grand Concourse, may be suffering from poorly designed modiRcations. The good precedents use drawings and detailed descriptions of street life (in the manner of Jane Jacobs) to establish that these boulevards are lovely and safe public places, despite the high traffic volumes.

The history chapter documents the emergence of multiway boulevards as pleasure promenades in the nineteenth century and their decline during the last 60 years. Separation of land uses and traffic types by the fledgling planning and traffic engineering professions almost made boulevards obsolete.

One glance at the tangle of intersection turning movements is enough to convince many traffic engineers that multiway boulevards are unsafe. They should look again. The authors were not able to find any historic traffic studies that might justify the widely held assumption of safety problems. So they conducted their own research using modern engineering methods-videotapes, photography, traffic counts and accident statistics. Their extended observations of 12 street/boulevard pairs could not confirm that boulevards were less safe than adjacent avenues and several performed better. It appears that drivers and pedestrians adjust to the complex conditions in boulevard intersections. The safety problems may be caused by poor designs for the pedestrian realm, such as wide access lane pavements that encourage speedy through traffic.

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